LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
This is only one protagonist in Ellen Meister's new novel, but there are two plots. Quinn Braverman is a pregnant, suburban mother of a 6-year-old boy, and wife of a down-to-earth guy who owns a fleet of taxis. Quinn is also a single girlfriend of a needy shock jock who lives in a hig-rise apartment in Manhattan. And the thing is, she lives both lives simultaneously and can switch between the two.
The book is called "The Other Life," and its author, Ellen Meister, is in NPR's New York studio. Welcome to the program.
Ms. ELLEN MEISTER (Author, "The Other Life"): Thanks so much for having me, Liane.
HANSEN: Quinn has access to a portal in her basement laundry room. Explain the premise of her parallel lives.
Ms. MEISTER: Well, what happened with Quinn - when she was a baby, something happened - and it's explained in the book - that split her life in two. And growing up, she was aware that every time she made a major life decision, another life existed in which she made the opposite choice.
Now, there are portals between the two lives. She's very much aware of them. She's actually come close and touched and brushed against the other side. But she's never been tempted to slip through and go from one life to the other, until something fairly large happens in her life that causes enough stress for her to want to see what's there, on the other side.
HANSEN: There's a scene on Page 193 of the book. It's in Chapter 21, and Quinn is in a terrible state of mind because in one life, her mother's alive and in the other life, her mother has committed suicide. Would you begin where Quinn is in the laundry, and the paragraph begins: She knocked the basket of clothes onto the floor.
Ms. MEISTER: My pleasure. Thanks, Liane.
(Reading) She knocked the basket of clothes onto the floor, and kicked it. It felt good to unleash her anger, but she needed something more. If her strength had matched her fury, she would have ripped the washer from the plumbing and hurled it away. She would have pulled the cabinets off the walls, and smashed them to pieces. She would have kicked holes in the drywall, and smashed the lights. She was as infuriated as with her own impotence as she was with her mother. She knew it wasn't Nan's fault that her brother was in the hospital and that her baby was damaged but damn it, she should be there to help her through.
Quinn stood in the center of the room, panting and sweating. Was there no outlet for this rage, no outlet for a woman whose mother had made the most selfish decision of all? There was, of course. There was one, perfect outlet, and Quinn knew it. At last, she pulled open the ancient ironing board, and crossed through to the other life.
HANSEN: That's Ellen Meister reading a section of her book "The Other Life."
First of all, about portals: Are you a science fiction fan? Why did this interest you?
Ms. MEISTER: You know, it never occurred to me as science fiction. I got the idea because I was just sitting home one day - typical moment where the husband had left for work, the kids had left for school, and I was thinking about the fact that when I'm alone in the house during those precious few hours, I get to escape into this world of fiction that I created. And I was focusing on that, and concentrating on that.
And a strange thought occurred to me. And I said, what if a woman had the ultimate escape - the ability to actually slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she had made completely different choices? It didn't occur to me as science fiction; it occurred to me as just this very, very powerful what-if? And in fact, I immediately pictured the portal in the most domestic scene you can imagine; you know, right behind an ironing board in her basement - in fact, in the foundation of her house, which seemed a really neat metaphor to me.
HANSEN: And so you had no knowledge of quantum physics and no knowledge of, say, the string theorist, Brian Greene's contention that there are actually parallel universes and different dimensions?
Ms. MEISTER: When I wrote the book, no. I had never heard of it; I didn't know that there were quantum physicists who theorize that actually - every possibility in the universe actually exists. I learned about that only after I had written the book. And I said, look at that. I just, you know, stumbled onto quantum physics.
HANSEN: Does some of this book come from your own life? I mean, you live in Long Island, and you've got three kids. You don't drive a Volvo - you drive a minivan - but in some respects?
Ms. MEISTER: Well, in some respects, of course. While there might not be actual facts lifted from my life, what I try to do as an author is take emotional truths and put them in fictional scenarios. So yes, in that sense, there are pieces of my life. And the way I feel about a mother, the way I feel about a relationship, the way I feel about children, that's - I hope - is all in there.
HANSEN: Were you concerned at all that this whole portal thing would be a gimmick, that it would turn into - I mean, I don't know if you're old enough to remember "The Twilight Zone" episodes...
Ms. MEISTER: Of course.
HANSEN: You do remember that...
Ms. MEISTER: Of course.
HANSEN: ...where the physicists just drew on the wall, and the portal?
Ms. MEISTER: Right.
HANSEN: Yeah? Well, you were concerned, though, that the device would get too gimmicky?
Ms. MEISTER: That was a very, very tricky thing to navigate with the book. Once I had all these ideas, I sat down. I said, let me see how I can make this work, and make it not feel like science fiction and not even really feel paranormal, but just this sort of strange magical realism within a very grounded story.
HANSEN: I think you said it - magical realism. That's not a phrase I've heard in a while but of course, it's a great tradition in literature.
Ms. MEISTER: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't that when I came up with the idea - I didn't say to myself, I'd love to write a magical realism book. I got the idea and I said, that's the tone that I want to get with this book. I really just want to explore this woman and her two lives, and her choices.
HANSEN: This is a novel that takes the reader right up to the last sentence of the book. And you leave a lot of things unresolved, which in some ways is satisfying but also frustrating. Did you leave it open-ended for another book?
Ms. MEISTER: No, I didn't leave it open-ended for another book. What was important to me wasn't what happened so much as what Quinn's decision was. That was where I wanted to leave the reader. And I thought that by ending it where I did, it made that point. What was critical was where she got to, and what decision she made. And as far as what happens after that, it wasn't as important as the decision.
HANSEN: I get the feeling that you really love this character, Quinn Braverman. I mean, she really got under your skin.
Ms. MEISTER: I'm so glad to hear you say that because I love authors who not only explore the relationship between people in a fresh, invigorating and exciting and insightful way. But when an author's affection for their characters feels like it goes straight from the pages to my heart, that's a book that I will really fall in love with. So I take that as a big compliment. Thank you.
HANSEN: Ellen Meister's new novel, "The Other Life," has just been published, and she joined us from the NPR studio in New York. Thank you very much.
Ms. MEISTER: Thanks for having me.
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